An Pounds 80 bonus for completing a return-to-learn course has been a vital part of a highly successful training initiative in Belfast.
Adult Learners' Week will be celebrated next week with the announcement of adult learners' awards to individuals or groups who have shown extraordinary staying power and imagination in their determination to study.
When the judges came to award the five winners in the group learners' awards this year they hit a snag. Because the quality of entries was so high the judges took the unusual step of highly commending three further groups - and one of these was the Belfast Women's Training Services.
The judges had to be convinced that "major obstacles had been tackled and overcome, resulting in a significant and preferably innovative contribution to the community".
The very fact that the Belfast Women's Training Services exists is testament enough to major obstacles having been overcome. It was formed in 1993 from an alliance of eight Belfast-based women's centres. While many of the women who attend the centres have been reluctant to move beyond their neighbourhood, the centre's organisers have reached out to form effective cross-community links.
The training services put in a successful bid to Northern Ireland's Training and Employment Agency for a three-year contract to set up and deliver pre-vocational training courses for women seeking to change their lives and study, train, undertake paid employment or voluntary work in the community.
Claire Keatinge, the services' organiser says: "Government agencies have found it extremely difficult to enrol people on to pre-vocational training courses. Because we operate through local and trusted centres we have been very successful."
To date the training services has run 17 courses with places for 204 women. A total of 206 women enrolled on the courses, with 196 (95 per cent) successfully completing.
The age range is 17 to 68 years and over 40 per cent say that they are going on to further training or a job and 30 per cent are getting involved in community work.
Ms Keatinge explains that the course "Women Moving On" has been very successful because it acknowledges that many of the women are not just returning to work after a career break - they are seeking work for the first time since leaving school.
Each centre also provides a free creche for children under five at all the sessions of the course. Older children can be cared for in the creche when the schools are shut.
The Pounds 80 bonus has been vital. Living on low income combined with little or no personal income makes the women value a lump sum that does not affect their tax or social security benefits.
One woman commented: "Certainly the bonus was part of what got me interested in the course, but once I'd started I'd have gone on with it even without the money." The bonus was also described as making it worth taking the chance on a course which might or might not turn out to be useful: "Whatever the course turned out like, I knew I'd have the Pounds 80 if I stuck to it."
Anne McVicker of the Shankill Women's Centre said: "Women with children, dependent elderly relatives or partners in prison have made a massive commitment to learning. And they have taken major steps forward in their lives as a result."
A group of women from Ardoyne said: "We have achieved big changes through the course. We are more confident, better able to get work and we are now of more use in our local projects."
Another group said: "We didn't realise just how much we had already achieved in our lives working for no or low pay, juggling low incomes, caring for children and elderly relatives all take real skilles to do well."